Monday, May 27, 2013

My Memories of Tracey Helton

My Memories of Tracey Helton

Christy Schragal



Tracey is a friend back from public grade school days, but do I really have any personal memories of her before we ended up at the same Catholic, college-prep girls’ high school? Do I really have any memories of her before junior and senior years? Where was she? Where was I? I still have the t-shirt that she gave to me for my 16th birthday, a memory I can at least time stamp because the shirt says “1986.”  I have to take this as my first “Tracey” memory, yet a prior friendship must have existed if she gave me a gift…right? Right? Where was I in our friendship?

I remember having a surprise summer 16th birthday party thrown by my group of friends from that same high school, a group with which Tracy was probably loosely affiliated, yet I think that she was not at the partyinstead received her gift at my home one day when I was home alone, babysitting my four younger siblings. We were always under strict orders not to have anyone, not even an adult neighbor who we knew, in the house when our parents weren’t home. We were not to even answer the door.When Tracey rang the doorbell and I saw who it was through the curtain sheers, I hid. I knew then as surely as I know now that it was more than following my strict mother’s order or fear for my personal safety that kept me from the door – I was embarrassed to explain my situation. I was embarrassed that someone had just shown up at my house. I think that I was embarrassed that it was Tracy, although I am still hard pressed even now to say why. We hid through another doorbell ring as well as a knock at the back door, and then she left, leaving behind the birthday package.

I felt like a shit. I was surprised by the gift. I knew I now had to acknowledge both Tracy’s surprise visit and our presence behind the curtains. My hypocritical mother chided me for not answering the door to my friend. I know I stammered some excuse to Tracy about not being home, or maybe even got brave enough to admit not being allowed to answer my own door at age 16. I was not brave enough to admit my discomfort with our friendship. How does one do that at 16 without at least knowing why? Without something obvious to blame, like a fight, or a new friend, or a boyfriend, or moving away?

The more I’ve tried to recall how I spent time with her in those years, the more I can see her sitting at our chosen cafeteria table during a free module, talking with some of the members of the group who were not super close to me, but a part of the group nevertheless, etc. Where was I? We must have shared lots ofclasses; we certainly shared senior home room, where we chatted away, passed notes and called each other “Monkey” and “Froggy” every morning. I knew that Tracey had started some voice lessons, that she was interested in a (older?) guy named Ian – a name I’d somehow never heard before and imagined to be spelled “Eon.” I knew she had friends from her neighborhood or from other walks of her life that were older, or different, or more sophisticated, or something that wasn’t me. I think I was glad that I was never included in those friendships. I knew that her mom smoked and her dad drank at Tommy’s, and that both of these things scared and fascinated me as being completely foreign to my own home experience. I once slept over at her house and came home with a copied Prince tape and a sleeping bag that reeked of cigarettes.


I still felt uncomfortable – I felt sought after for reasons that were unclear to me as well as flattering. But I didn’t seek back. Iremained the party of reluctant and least interest. I felt pressured by Tracey to be different than I was, to love her. I felt pressured by the good girl inside of me, and my artificial good girl mother, and by my own tendency to go with the flow to accept the friendship, but I refused to love it.

Tracey and I both went on the school’s annual summer trip to France after our junior year. We were generally roommates at each stop, along with 2-4 others from our group of school friends, and all of us mixed and matched up for the tours, the free time and the meals.  This was my first trip away from my family, on a plane, overseas. I’m in shock to this day that my mother allowed it and I know that my mother would be shocked to know just how much free time, and personal freedom we were permitted, as well as by the potentially unsafe, but benign and relatively dumb things we did. Like getting lost between the Metro and Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, and accepting both directions and a Coke from a strange man at his neighborhood bar, and later ponying up some Francs and chaste kisses on the cheek when he insisted. Like visiting Le Pompidou and having to leave immediately with a bloody nose, wandering alone without my group into the large, slanting public square outside while I waited for the gush to stop.

While I waited (and hoped that it wasn’t forever) I gratefully came across Tracey who was already outside in the square for some reason. Perhaps on her own that day. We walked a bit, and stopped near a dark, filthy alley so that I could dispose of my wads of tissues and blood clots. A tall, dark man in dreadlocks approached us and we declined whatever he was offering as well as his unwelcome company, and yet I had the impression that he had approached us for a reason. As if Tracey had already been talking to him, or as if we looked like we wanted what he was offering. I don’t even know what it was – but I know I could not get away fast enough. When I revisited Paris two years ago, I returned to Le Pompidou and pointed out the general area of the bloody nose to my husband. I did not see the slightest trace of dark, or filth, or the man, or my fear.

On our last night in Paris, the school group traveled to a train station to take night passage to Lyons. Our days and nights of freedom in Paris were over and I cried over the transition. Tracey comforted me, and allowed me to wear her cool black leather jacket as several of us stood in the aisles and screamed goodbye out the open train windows as Paris rushed away. I felted protected, and warm, and much cooler than I was, and I was fine and happy again among my friends. We have a picture of our group inside our tiny 6-bunk sleeper room, each hanging out of our bed in order to fit within the frame of the doorway, and there are Tracey and I on the same level  - was it the bottom bunks?

At some southern stop of the trip we stayed at a small hotel where the room keys were hung on giant brass weights, presumable to prevent theft. I remember getting confused over whether to leave the key with the desk clerk when you left the hotel during the day or when you had retired for the night. One night I returned my key and ran back up to bed, thereby creating the impression with our chaperones that I had been out all night. Laughable for a girl like me – but why was Tracey out so late? She was not out all night, although I think I may have taken her key down with mine on that other night of false accusations and unbelieving looks, but there was definitely a night when she went out and came back too late, alone. Where was she? Where was there to go all alone? How could she seek out the non-English speaking strangers of this little city and for what? I didn’t want to know and I didn’t want to be asked to come along, especially if it made me feel uncomfortable or uncool. I didn’t ask.

And perhaps those are the last of my specific memories….surely there were more passed notes, phone calls, weird feelings on my part, graduation, summer after, and the eventual drifting apart that happened to all of our group. I don’t know. I never heard from Tracey again and never wondered what happened to her. I think our next contact was just 5 years ago, when I joined Facebook. We eventually crossed paths, accepted each other’sfriend requests, and settled in to vicariously learn bits about each other’s current, daily lives on the Newsfeed. I remember feeling that same discomfort when we reconnected, like hearing from an ex-boyfriend and wondering what they want. Wondering if it is going to be the same. Wondering what is wrong with me that I am so mean and negative and private.

I slowly learned that Tracey was an ex-junkie. That it had been bad and that she had been clean for a long time. That I felt proud of her and relief that she had come to the other side of what must have been a nightmare journey. Then I learned that she had been on HBO’s documentary, ‘Black Tar Heroin’ and that it had been really, really bad. That she was even more amazing for her clean period, and her family and her social work. I wondered whathappened in in our years together that may have signaled her search for acceptance that wound up in drug abuse, what I had missed, what I had subconsciously sensed and run away from. Tracey began to write and write and write, and I found her life even more amazing and brave, and I read pieces of her life that meshed with mine, and remembered things I’d forgotten, and I knew I had been right all along about both her and about me. She had been struggling and needful, and that I had been scared and unwelcoming.


Where are we now? Where is she? Where am I?

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